Thursday, 14 May 2015

Mothers of the 1970s

Moving in and out of countries, across borders, languages and cultures in these last weeks, brings me to the feeling of my backpacking days. Lugging myself and my suitcase (once backpack) over distances and cobble stone streets, I’m in the present moment, taking in each day, savouring the differences. Travel un-fixes the static self, requiring fluidity and the ability to adapt. Now, I am ready to go home again, very much so, in saturation of this travel. I feel the foreignness of France more acutely, as I long for my family and the familiarity of our little apartment in East Vancouver. 

I know why its called "home-sick." It feels like an illness, a physical ache in the pit of the stomach, and could turn worse if not cared for. How do people do it? Moving to live halfway across the globe like my grandparents, and all the many emigrants and migrants who leave their homes to live in places like Canada. One learns to trade one sense of the familiar for another, and/or lives with that pang of longing for another place and people. I think of all the families separated for months or years by economic necessity, as a parent moves elsewhere for work.

From this topic of “travel” to time travel. I have been reminded a lot lately of the 1970s. Especially the advent of what is known as ‘second wave’ feminism. Being in Women’s and Gender Studies in France, I am experiencing localized and lived effects of feminism across borders, and it’s onwards effects in time. One of my co-presenters in Rome, on a panel concerning “Mothers and Daughters,” is an Italian woman (now living in England) writing about growing up during her mother’s feminist awakening, in Italy of the 1970s. She interviewed her mother about those years, years in which her mother left her in the care of her father and aunts, to pursue her feminist awakening. Beyond this initial abandonment, her mother maintained contact with her, and remained in her life, though not as a care-giver.

Her paper lovingly interweaves the interview with her mother, with her own journey as a mother (who can’t imagine leaving her child). She discusses the gains made by Italian women during the 1970s women’s movement in Italy. How her own life and freer choices are the transformative results of her mother's generation of Italian feminism. This movement forged through an intensely macho/patriarchal culture (as it was, and can still be), dominated by traditional male-centred marriage without access to family planning, abortion, or divorce, and all the many social, economic and religious traps for women in such a society. Her paper highlights her mother’s voice, saying that THE central aspect of the movement was that women lived and worked together. How important were women’s relationships with each other, for finding voice, place, path, and creating freedom in new social norms and values.

The walls of the building of la Casa del donne, where we stayed in Rome, are lined with B & W photographs and posters of women gathering, working, protesting, and collaborating in this Italian women’s movement of the 1970s. I have written of this time period before, but in Canada, being also the years of my childhood. Similarly, yet in a different narrative to my co-presenter, I was impacted by those years with my mother. My mother’s life was then opening into experimental artistic studies and bohemian co-living situations, through which I travelled and lived with her as a child. I lived half-time with each of my parents after their divorce. I was encouraged to be and do and what I wanted when "I grew up." A true child of the "Free to Be, You and Me" generation. My dad brought this record-book set home early on in my life, which inspired children to get beyond gender, race, and class stereotypes and live in authentic ways, told in thoughtful but fun (and funny) stories. I don't know how many times I listened to that record, and read that book.

In was in this same period of the 1970s, that Helene Cixous became known to Anglo-Canadian/American feminists. Her essay “Laugh of the Medusa (1976) was translated into English.

“Write your self. Your body must be heard. Only then will the immense resources of the unconscious spring forth”

“She must write her self, because this is the invention of a new insurgent writing which, when the moment of her liberation has come, will allow her to carry out the indispensable ruptures and transformations in her history”
                                   Helene Cixous, Laugh of the Medusa

Cixous’ essay provokes the right and rites of women’s writing as intimately inter-connected to the liberation of the self/ body/ soul/ and culture-at-large. The whole conjunction of “French Feminism,” which includes people such as Helene Cixous, Catherine Clément, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva, was created in the 1970s, as their translated works became available in a trans-Atlantic shuttle. This exchange includes French feminists reading the Americans in translation.

I am very aware of how this 1970s period of women’s collaborative and transformative living/working leaks into the contemporary work and practices of women’s spirituality. Women’s spirituality is rooted in women’s leadership, a leadership lived through women's relationships and friendships as centering and creative forces for all kinds of new social/ cultural/ economic/ spiritual practices and philosophies. This is true in my own life and scholarly path, which has grown and been nourished through a women’s relational lens.

The '70s time frame keeps calling me backwards, just as it moves forward in my life. An impact I am more and more curious to grasp.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015


Last Friday, Barbara and I travelled to Chartres cathedral, only an hour out of Paris by train. That morning, we had continued our “MA” pose practice, in which we hold, for 7 minutes, a pose/gesture based on figures of the ancient mother:

That day, our pose was “invocation,” or “adoration.” This MA stands straight, her arms raised mid-way at her side in a “W,” with her palms open, radiating out from her body. Her eyes are most often open, gazing outwards/inwards in trance. My experience of this pose began with the feeling of being a solid pillar, holding a tree-like strength that connects the earth with sky. I felt a sense of peace-of-being, standing in my own strength/authority, as I greet and acknowledge the world, from within my own body. Gazing towards, and feeling the presence of green tree-life in the park, listening to bird song, I felt how the human-being is also a source of blessing. A reminder that there is no hierarchy between human / earthly non-human /spirit allies, we all contribute to webs of life.

Arriving into the town of Chartres, and then walking up to the cathedral, I was excited to share the Black Madonnas there with Barbara. Though we also planned to walk the labyrinth of Chartres, I felt a sense of hurried anticipation to see “Her.” Just as I did on my first visit there, three years ago:

Black Madonnas are found all over France, and have a particular calling for those devoted to the ancient Earth-mother in her various forms. They are often carved in wood, or their faces painted black. The Church denies any significance to this skin tone. Shrines of Black Madonnas are often place-based, being located on sites of significance for the local population (now or in the past). Chartres is a place of ancient pilgrimage. The cathedral itself is almost 1000 years old. Like many European cathedrals, it was built over an ancient locale of pre-Christian worship, said to be of the Druids or Celtic peoples who worshipped an Earth-mother there. There is a well in its crypt, from a spring water source. The energy of the place is very strong, with birth-like undertones in its double-goddess placement of above- and below- ground Black Madonnas: Notre Dame de Pilier, and Notre Dame de Sous-Terre. These Madonnas, in tree and cave-like (crypt) placements, hold an axis mundi of Marian/mother-earth devotion for the whole cathedral site. As above, so below.

The cathedral is going through a restoration, to clean and restore its surfaces. Some art historians are questioning the tactics of this. A few of the huge columns are now painted over with colours. New whitened surfaces shift how interiors and the famous stained-glass windows are perceived, in the glory of the vaulted spaces.

One other ‘restoration’ left me in shock. I had no idea, but as we rounded the bend and into the chapel of Notre Dame de Pilier, there SHE was, but I had to take a second look. She and her child had been painted white, with red-rouge cheeks, and red lips to boot. I couldn’t fully take in what I was seeing. It seems the renovations of Chartres include a white-washing of its famous Black Madonna, with a full make-over. Later, via internet, I read of some outcry this has caused, but it seems a permanent change.

Even in this shock of seeing her whitened, I decided to continue with my devotions. I was given strength by watching a group of pilgrims from India, who had arrived with me in the (not-Black) Madonna chapel. A whole family of various ages, they held their candles in prayer, and took turns kneeling at her pillar, touching her base. Witnessing this adoration, I felt rooted in Mother-devotion. I too sat at her feet, kneeling on the adoration stool. I briefly held the “invocation” pose towards her. My hands radiating to her icon, the energy was so immediately strong that it swirled in a whirlwind around my body. I swayed with this, and could not hold my (or any) centre. I moved to the pew and sat down, giving thanks for being here again, and sort-of let my mind empty.

Later, Barbara and I spent the warm, sunny afternoon outside, circumambulating the cathedral, enjoying its various exterior views and sculptures. Near the back, a beautiful garden of flowers was in full spring bloom. I took up the “invocation” pose again, holding my arms and hands under a beautiful, arching wrought-iron gate. We then sat for a long time on one of the blocks of stone that sit around the cathedral’s perimeter, gazing on the many stories in stone. 

Saturday, 9 May 2015

What is the healing question?

What would you ask Hélène Cixous, if you had the chance?

I am reading Cixous, and writing my-self. My research program is also very much about being here in France, in the French university system (via Paris 8), immersed in language and culture. And attending Cixous’ monthly seminar, with an opportunity to speak with her, maybe even to discuss, clarify and dialogue.

But what question do I ask?

I have many, many things I am curious about. Cixous’ idea of “lirécrire” – “readwrite,” alongside my idea of midwifing texts. Cixous’ sense of Michel de Montaigne’s tower as an eternal tree and a mother-tower of France, as both a prison and a tree, as a source of writing itself. Her saying that, 'art has to do with being a prisoner,' and 'to evade.' Her ideas related to the corpus of her mother-texts, and the relationship between ‘mother’ and writing. Her notion that “telepathy” is the next step from empathy, in the sending and receiving of messages.

What question to ask?

I have been thinking about the very old story of Parsifal a.k.a. Perceval, originating in Celtic mythology. “Parsifal” is the composer Wagner’s spelling of this name in his opera version of the story. Parsifal meaning “pure fool.” Perceval is a wandering Knight of the Round Table, in search of the Holy Grail. As a hero, he must pass the test, and ask the right question of the Fisher King (the Wounded King) at the Grail Castle. The land has become barren due to the Grail King’s un-healing wound. Having arrived after many trials at the Castle, and sitting at the King’s grande table, Perceval is given a feast. All sumptuous dishes of food and riches arrive. Before each course, a procession with a bleeding lance and a grail are paraded before him. Yet Perceval remains silent, not asking the question that would heal the King and save the kingdom. He does not speak out of politeness. He must then quest for many more years, finally realizing that his failure to speak has caused the King’s wound to go unhealed. The Grail itself had been paraded before him. He returns to the Castle to ask the healing question.

It’s a lot to think that a question can heal (rather then an answer). Qualitative research can be something like this, beginning with a question, and often ending with more.

Here now, with Cixous, it’s like I don’t know the question to ask. What is my question of the Grail? Time is running out. The feast is being paraded before me, and there are only so many trans-Atlantic/Arctic fights I can make. It’s a long way to go and not ask the question. Despite bravado in travel and being here in my quest, I can be very shy and polite, not wanting to bother people.

Today, in her seminar, Hélène Cixous spoke of two places, Osnabruck (Germany) and Jerusalem (Israel). She drew a map to show us the location of Osnabruck with its North-west location in Germany, and its relation to other countries of Europe. It was a founded by Charlemagne, King of the Franks. A once small town, it is now a cosmopolitan city. Cixous mentioned memorial plaques, all over her grandmother and mother’s birthplace of Osnabruck, whose Jewish population was decimated during WWII. This is common to many German cities, memorializing the horrors of the Holocaust through plaques that mark key sites of activity, lest we forget.

Cixous spoke of the surrealist painter artist Felix Naussbaum, who was born in Osnabruck. A German-Jew, he was studying in Rome when the Nazis took power in Germany. Naussbaum quickly realized he had to leave the academy and flee the Nazi view of Aryan life and art. He and his wife spent the next ten years in exile, hiding in Belgium. He painted images depicting the fear and darkness of living through the Nazi reign of terror. They were eventually discovered in their hidden attic, and killed at Auschwitz. His whole family, mother, father, brother, sister-in-law, died in the death camps.

Cixous noted how such memorial plaques have not been done in France, and why not? It’s a practice for the living to know the deaths we have come from, in order to create a society of peace. A continuing theme I am learning in Cixous’ current seminar is questioning all zones of exclusion, and the ways in which peoples are severed from each other, at worst through violence and death of the other. We can think of this worldwide in obvious ways. Cixous pondered the conditions of Israel and Palestine, the defining sense of being ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ at work in modern Israel.

Last week, I bore my own quiet witness to the people of Belfast and Northern Ireland. I was often on the verge of tears, in the relief of finally going ‘home.’ But something else too. Feeling the lives of my relatives (and all) in this place I feared to go with my grandparents as a child in the 1970s, with its sectarian violence.

And so, what is the healing question? To inquire into, and remember the wound. 

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Rome – Motherers

I am in Paris, but writing of Rome. Last night, reading a loud from Cixous’ book “Hemlock,” in coincidence I am reading a section where the narrator dreams a dream of being in Rome,

“to find myself in those streets, around noon, especially because underfoot my sandals recognized the density of the cobbles, the unevenness of those beautiful blocks of stone one beside the other, joined and disjointed in their intervals by that red earth that mixes the beginning of life with what will be ruins, in other words, survival.” (p. 101, 2011/2008)

In Rome, I felt how notable those old, old square black cobblestones are. How remarkable in their appearances, and in the ways they focused me, my feet, in walking on the ground, step-by-step. Being in Rome, and especially leading a grounding meditation for people in the Nap-in/Dream scroll workshop that Barbara and I led, I felt the density of so many, many layers under our feet. How far down into time, and into our own histories, our own stories, can we travel?

The message coming from below was to travel through the layers. 
Travel through the layers.

Rome was a rich time of dwelling with mothers – scholar-mothers, artist-mothers, writer-mothers, thinking-mothers, healing-mothers, being-mothers. 

In this way, MIRCI ( has been deeply connected to my academic journey over all the years of raising small children alongside graduate studies and work, and into my life as a working academic. Having motherhood-studies and dialogues in my life, being part of this motherhood-inquiring feminist community over these many years, keeps me truer to my work, as I travel through the layers. A beacon and reminder of what needs to be integrated and acknowledged.

After our Nap-in practice:

and stitching our dreams onto the dream scroll, we released the dreams by the Tiber River. A group of scholar-mothers, or “motherers” as Genevieve Vaughan named as such, in her talk on Gift economy philosophy ( The “Gift” is the unrecognized other-side (under-side) of the exchange economy. The exchange economy feeds, fuels, grows rich and makes poor from the Gift, without which it cannot function (e.g. the earth’s resources, the bodies and minds of people themselves). Gifts are what circulates freely among us (yes, the best things in life are “free”). As in the way a mother cares for her child, the ways she feeds, bathes, talks, guides, and communicates with the child. Gestation and birth is itself a gift, as is the ongoing work of mother-labour, without which we cannot go on in human lives. Yes, there are mothers, but there also are many others who mother children, and those who mother not only children, but projects of social justice, education and care. Thus, the term “motherers,” as we give gifts of our time, patience, care, dialogue, and presence.

The gift of healing was the final theme in Rome! Vicki Noble ( led a healing ritual on our last night there. We sang an ongoing chorus, and as drummers beat a steady rythme, people took turns sitting in the middle of two circles to receive hands-on-healing. Most everyone had a turn, feeling the gentle touch of healing hands. I spent much of the night as a healer. During my turn to sit and receive, I closed my eyes and felt the light touch of nurturing hands on my shoulders. I wept in this gentleness, this love. A healer shook her rattle over my chest and held my knees and feet as I sobbed some more. My head released fear and tension, as I made ready for my Ireland experience. I would soon pass through layers of an old trauma, finally understanding it wasn’t my own. I had carried it far enough and could lay it down. Ease and relief were my reward.

Monday, 4 May 2015

The language of MA

I am at the start of a one-week Cixousian writing studio in Paris. I initiated this writing and art studio so I could invite Canadian arts-based scholars to join me in France, and explore connections between Cixous' texts and arts-based research practices. Four colleagues almost came! But then most needed to stay home for various reasons, and now one has actually arrived. This is my colleague and friend Barbara, who is currently on sabbatical, and joins me for this creative week. After our many years of artful collaborations, including in the Gestare Art Collective (, we have quickly created practices and a schedule for our week.

In Rome, Barbara and I attended the "Maternal Subjectivities" MIRCI conference: 

this was wonderfully combined with the "Maternal Roots of the Gift Economy" conference, at the amazing Casa delle donne: 

We had the good fortune to sleep in the same dorm room as Annine van der Meer, who was attending the Gift economy conference. She has written a magnum opus, a book that goes alongside, extends, and updates, the work of archaeo-mythology, and Marjia Gimbutus, in tracking ancient icons, figures, symbols, in the language of “MA,” the primal mother of Paleolithic, Neolithic, Copper/Bronze/Iron ages, into our times cultures. The subtitle of Annine’s work is: “The evolution of the female image in 40,000 years of global Venus Art.” In one section of her image filled text, Annine outlines a series of specific, oft-found poses, based from affinities in ancient female figures and images across cultures.

Our Paris studio curriculum
To ground and embody our writing, Barbara and I decided to start each day holding a "MA"/ancient mother pose (7 minutes), writing after this (7 Minutes), and then each checking-in from our writing (7 minutes). We are also recording our dreams, and checking-in about these. You can see our magic number is 7! Mornings are for writing time, and afternoons for more writing, or visiting art galleries and Paris locales. In the evenings we are reading Cixous essays, including “Coming to writing,” out loud to each other. We will be meeting with my Paris 8 supervisor to visit, and discuss Cixous' writing. 

Day 1
The first pose is “The primal mother and ancestress gives birth.”

Looking at various figures across cultures, we see the birthing lady with her legs spread as a baby’s head emerges. She is either lying down to give birth, seated, or in squatting pose. She is also shown menstruating onto the earth, or she appears ready for sexual giving and receiving. These three aspects of physiology are of course connected. But the birth impulse is primary and significant in these poses and figures.

I hold this pose lying down, my legs open and my arms above my head. I feel a symmetry of arms, legs, and head. The baby’s head is being birthed from inside of me, which mirrors my own head, birthed between my upraised arms. I feel tingling in my hands, and a deep sense of opening, allowing the birth(s) to come through. 

Barbara speaks of how her travelling sabbatical in Europe is like a “creative rest," an “active rest.” Birth-giving is itself VERY active. Yet the body is doing it for us if we let it, in surrendering to what can be an overwhelming process. Much like this trip for me. I can only be where I am in the moment. So much is happening each day, I can't go past the moment I'm in. I breath and allow the beauty of this present time. A wealth of material is being given. I am birthing many projects and connections, now and to come. 

The two-headed birth-giver is a maternal image I want to draw, sew, and write more of! LOTS of these. Two heads emerging and merged in one body, mother and child. The primal pose of life, hidden in our daily cultural texts, yet without which we would not be here, or live into the creative possibilities of our lives.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Back in Paris

Back in Paris. 

Much to catch up on writing-wise. I can’t keep up with my-self!

In the last 10 days I have travelled from Paris to Rome to Belfast,  making Facebook posts with images and short descriptions. These carry some of the story of my journeys. Each stop a new window, a new language, a new place for gathering experience with others and being present. A very rich time of meetings, sharing scholarship, connections, dreaming, and going “home.” There is more to write about Rome, and on the maternal in art, literature, and experience. Also the crossing and passing of walls, and what divides us, in my short visit to Belfast, Northern Ireland. I am an Irish citizen, who had never been to Ireland – the paradox of citizenship. My mother was born there. And though my grandma lived over half her life in Canada, I don't think she ever completely arrived in her new country. Ireland was very quickly a place I could feel into like no other I have ever visited, with many uncanny senses, my grandfather travelling with me. Though he is no longer alive, I felt his presence on my back as I got off the plane. I put my hand to the ground, with tears of primal relief, “I'm here Grandpa, I finally made it home.”

Home. This familiar quality lives inside me. Surrounded by the voices of my grandparents, how amazing and joyful to hear a whole country talk this way! A continual chorus of 'ayes' and 'wees.' I was so often on the verge of tears (joyful ones). I can’t quite name all the feelings, and was surprised by them, the deep relief and re-connection. Being here/there was beyond any expectations. It was a simple/direct thing, new to me. This is also a land/people in (need of) healing. Yet folks are present, friendly, and call you "love." They seem grounded in their own place(s) and a sense of belonging. Something I don’t have in a literal sense. I can’t take belonging for granted in Canada. It's something I negotiate in more fluid boundaries. The elastic tensions of living across differences with an ear open to the other. An open-ended curriculum I am always learning from, my hand on the earth.